A Saudi mother and PhD student who was this week sentenced to 34 years in prison for expressing her personal opinion on Twitter may have been incriminated through a Saudi security app designed to snitch on fellow citizens, it has been revealed.
According to the Guardian newspaper, the Kollona Amn – translating to 'we are all security' – app was possibly responsible for the arrest of Salma Al-Shehab, almost two years ago and her sentencing this week.
After writing "finally!" in response to the news of a Saudi transportation project, the mother and Leeds University PhD student was messaged by an apparently Saudi man's account on 15 November 2020, who told her that he had reported her to Saudi authorities through the app.
Upon her return to Saudi Arabia in December 2020, she was then arrested by security forces and subjected to the process which now ended in her being charged with "assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts".
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It has not been directly verified whether the app and the Twitter user's complaint was responsible for her ordeal, but it is suspected to have possibly played a significant role. According to Saudi websites, the app enables citizens and expatriates to submit security and criminal reports related to personal life attacks, threats, impersonation, extortion, penetration of social media accounts, defamation, fraud and other criminal offences and security reports.
Despite such an official description, the app has been described by critics as a portal through which Saudi authorities can further crack down on even the slightest forms of dissent and which enables people to 'snitch on' and report fellow citizens or expatriates.
According to the paper, Noura Aljizawi, a researcher at the Citizen Lab at Canada's University of Toronto, stated that the app and its use represent a "new phase of digital authoritarianism". While formerly "this kind of censorship was conducted by security intelligence forces … now having these applications and encouraging citizens to report on each other, is opening the door to massive censorship," Aljizawi said.
"It is very concerning because people who post something cannot predict the risk or who is going to report them, and who is going to go back and search their feed for posts that don't align with government propaganda," she said. Referring to her own experiences of similar surveillance in Syria, the researcher explained that "Sometimes people find themselves in trouble. They need a promotion or need to prove their loyalty to the State, so they do something like this. It's enough to just take a screenshot and report it."